CHICAGO - A Puerto Rican nationalist freed from house arrest this week after decades in U.S. prisons received a hero's welcome Thursday in his longtime hometown of Chicago, where a parade was thrown in his honor and a street sign bearing his name was unveiled.
Those whose relatives died in bombings carried out by the Marxist-Leninist group that Oscar Lopez Rivera helped lead have derided attempts to cast the 74-year-old as a hero and criticized celebrations of his release scheduled in other U.S. cities in coming weeks.
Supporters of Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar Lopez Rivera cheer as he arrives for a press conference following his release from house arrest after decades in custody, on El Escambron Beach in San Juan, Puerto Rico, May 17, 2017.
With Lopez marching at the front of the procession with several local politicians, a modest but enthusiastic crowd of a few hundred people followed behind waiving Puerto Rican flags. One carried a sign that read, "Welcome Home Oscar;" another sign said, "Free at Last."
Lopez, who moved from Puerto Rico to Chicago as a child, belonged to the Armed Forces of National Liberation, or FALN. It claimed more than 100 bombings in U.S. cities in the 1970s and '80s, including multiple attacks at banks and corporate offices in Chicago.
In a weak voice, Lopez spoke to parade participants after several blocks.
"It's important in this world to transcend hatred and fear," he said. He spoke of a "continuing struggle" on behalf of Puerto Rico, but he said that struggle should be in the context of education and what he called critical thinking of Puerto Rican youth in the diaspora.
At the same spot, Lopez, with the help of several others, pushed aside the covering over the renamed street-way sign, which now reads, "Oscar Lopez Rivera Way."
The sign unveiling took place in Humboldt Park, a West Side neighborhood. Puerto Rican flags fashioned from metal and arched over a thoroughfare indicate the origins of many of its residents. Posters expressing support for Lopez were taped to many storefronts.
At the urging of several congressmen, including Chicago Democrat Luis Gutierrez, then-President Barack Obama commuted Lopez' sentence in January. A smiling Gutierrez walked arm-in-arm next to Lopez during Thursday's parade.
Families of victims
FALN's most notorious attack was a 1975 bombing that killed four people and wounded 60 at Fraunces Tavern, a landmark restaurant in New York's financial district.
Before Chicago's City Council voted this year to bestow the street-naming honor on Lopez, the son of one of those killed in New York said in a Chicago Sun-Times op-ed that the proposal was "horrific."
"A city under daily siege by violence, mayhem, fear and murder, may vote to honor a terrorist who trafficked in violence, mayhem, fear and murder," wrote Joe Connor, whose father was Frank Connor.
But many backers saw Lopez as a political prisoner and note he was never directly convicted of bombings or of harming anyone. His 1981 convictions and 55-year sentence were for seditious conspiracy, armed robbery and other charges.
Chicago Alderman Roberto Maldonado also spoke to those who participated in the parade, calling Lopez "our hero" and asserting that he was imprisoned - not for his role in a violent campaign - but for his belief in Puerto Rican independence.
Added Maldonado: "Oscar has travelled a long, hard road to freedom."
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